Composer  Jan  Bach

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Jan Bach was born December 11, 1937 in Forrest, Illinois. He earned a Bachelor of Music degree in 1959 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in composition there in 1971. His teachers included Robert Kelly and Kenneth Gaburo.  He also studied with Aaron Copland and Roberto Gerhard at Tanglewood in 1961 and with Thea Musgrave in Aldeburgh and London in 1974.

In 1957 he won the BMI Student Composers first prize. He later won the Koussevitsky competition at Tanglewood, the Harvey Gaul Composition Contest, the Mannes College opera competition, the Sigma Alpha Iota choral composition award, first prize at the First International Brass Congress in Montreux, Switzerland, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council, the Brown University choral composition award, first prize in the Nebraska Sinfonia chamber orchestra competition, and first prize in the New York City Opera competition. He has been nominated six times for the Pulitzer Prize in music, and in 1982, he was awarded a Presidential Research Professorship grant.

From 1962 to 1965 he was associate first horn in the U. S. Army Band at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia. Upon discharge, he taught for one year at the University of Tampa, Florida, and played in the orchestras of Tampa and St. Petersburg. Since 1966 he has taught theory and composition courses at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. In 1978 he was selected as one of three professors receiving the Excellence in Teaching award; in 1982 he was recipient of one of the first eight prestigious Presidential Research Professorship grants instituted by the university. For six years he was Northern Illinois University's nominee for the national CASE Professor of the Year award. Although taking an early retirement in 1998, he continued to teach one course each semester at the NIU School of Music until June of 2004.

jan bach

See my interviews with Samuel Adler, and Carlisle Floyd

==  Names which are links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

Jan Bach Being at Northern Illinois University, which is in DeKalb, about fifty miles west of Chicago, Jan Bach came into the city quite often.  In October of 1990, we arranged to meet at my home-studio for an interview.  He was glad to meet with me, having heard my programs for a few years on WNIB, Classical 97.

A performance of his opera The Happy Prince was being given here, and I was happy to promote the production.  Naturally, I took the opportunity to speak with the composer about it, as well as many other musical topics in order to do other programs in my on-going series devoted to living American composers.

For some reason that is completely unknown to me now, while we were setting up, we were chatting about various tunings, so that is where we pick up the conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Where do you come down on the business of changing the tuning from the equal temperament that we’re all used to?

Jan Bach:   I take that basically for granted.  I haven’t worked with unusual tunings at all.  I’m concerned about the inflections that are used.  One of the reasons I stopped writing twelve-tone music was that was only music which keyboard players, who happened to be composers, could work within.  I’ve never considered A-sharp the same as a B-flat.  It tells you where you’re going.  As a French horn player, I would inflect a note one direction or the other to try to give a sneak preview of where that note was going to go.  That’s what a teacher may call
playing between the notes.  Anybody can just play the notes, one note after the other, but to connect one note to another, one really needs to be able to make that inflection.  String quartets do it all the time.

BD:   Is that something the audience will pick up on, or is it that they just don’t understand this technicality?

Bach:   They hear it if it’s not done very well, unless it’s piano or some fixed-pitch instrument.  A quartet is capable of it, and it doesn’t have to be a string quartet.  It could be a trombone quartet, or any place where there’s infinite variety of pitch modifications.

BD:   Even reed instruments can bend the tone.

Bach:   Yes, and they do.  The problem with reed instruments is that if you change one hole on the instruments, it may change every other note on that instrument.  So, you’re better off doing it with your embouchure than you are filing holes larger or filling them to make them smaller.

BD:   I assume that the embouchure could take care of most things in between each half step, one way or the other?

Bach:   Look at George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.  That opening swoop that the clarinet player plays, he didn’t know was possible on the instrument.  He came in for the rehearsal and Ross Gorman, the clarinet player, was just screwing around.  He played that, and George said it was great, and to leave it in!

BD:   Because he had wanted all the notes?

Bach:   Yes.  If you look at the original manuscript, it shows a chromatic scale running all the way up to that high note.  The way the clarinet player does that is to move the fingers sideways on those holes which are open, so they gradually open more and more, and that raises the pitch.  As a French horn player, you’ve got an infinite variety of notes by moving your hand in the bell deeper.

BD:   But each time you’d have to change the fingering.  Could you get it to be a clean swoop the way a clarinet can?

Bach:   I can’t!  [Both laugh]  Barry Tuckwell has worked out a system of quarter-tone fingerings by using those odd harmonics on the instrument.  I use those in the slow movement of my Horn Concerto that Jon Boen played here in 1983.  [Boen was the Principal Horn with Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Grant Park Festival Orchestra for many years.]

BD:   Gershwin discovered that because the instrumentalist was noodling around.  Have you ever glommed onto something you didn’t know was possible because you heard an instrumentalist or a vocalist doing it?

Bach:   Yes.  In the Horn Concerto, I knew that a friend of mine at the University of Wisconsin, Doug Hill, was putting out a book on extended techniques of the French horn.  I said I really would like to use some of those, but I don’t know what they are.  He said that the book won’t be available until the following year, but he’d make me a deal.  If I would write a piece for a concert he was giving in Avignon, France, that summer, he would send me a pre-publication copy of the book.  There were a couple of effects that even as a horn player I didn’t know about, and had never thought to use.  For instance, you can use a middle mute in the bell of a horn, which has a little plunger that sticks out.  If you put your hand over that, you can get a very unusual wah-wah effect, almost like a tape distortion when an old open-reel tape got warped.  So, I used that in the concerto.

BD:   Did you use that as an effect, or did it really fit into the music?

Bach:   I hope it fitted into the music.  Jon has a very, very bright sound, and what happened when he would play a portion of the cadenzas, he’d come to a very loud note, which was the last note in a phrase, and as he stopped that note, one of the horns in the orchestra would play this effect.  It came off like the instrument was ricocheting off the walls.  I thought it made sense.  It wasn’t just an effect.  In fact, I’m very conservative that way.  I won’t use an effect unless I think it will work in the piece.  [With a nudge]  I may go twenty or thirty measures without any special effects!  [Both laugh]  After all, the performers were trained to play through their instruments.  Brass players have been ruined by people who didn’t understand how the instrument was supposed to work.  For instance, they have played some pieces where they are asked to play one high note, and then one low note, and a high note, and another low note
all very short notesand before you know it, they can’t play long notes anymore.  When I was in the Army band, I forgot how to play a whole note, because the horns played ‘oom-pah, oom-pah, oom-pah, oom-pah’.

BD:   You start playing off the beat, and by the end of the concert, you’re still playing off the beat!

Bach:   Absolutely, if you’re lucky!  We’re off-beat specialists.  So are the violists.  Ask a viola when was the last time he played a long note!

BD:   Do you take great pride in making sure that when you write an orchestral score, or even a march, that you turn things upside down and make the trumpets off the beat, and give the melodic line to the French horns, or in the violas?

Bach:   Well, I give the horns plenty of melodic material.  I don’t want anybody to sit there bored.  It’s bad enough if the audience is bored, but if the performers themselves are bored, you’ve got nothing.  That’s one of the problems with a lot of contemporary music
.  The melody itself is split up among a lot of different instruments, and no one person is playing the whole line, and can say, “This is the melody, let me pass it around.  Instead, here’s one note, and somebody else can play another note.

BD:   That sounds a bit like augenmusik [eye-music, or something that must be seen on the page to be appreciated].

Bach:   Yes, it is to some extent.  It’s also Klangfarbenmelodie [sound-color melody, where a musical line is split among several instruments].  There are all sorts of words in German to express what I mean [laughs], but my concern is that this is assembly-line music, and it appears in a lot of the minimalist music that has been heard lately.  A friend of mine, who has the choir at Northern, said that he literally had to take members out of the choir and have them sit in the auditorium during a rehearsal, so they could hear the pattern everybody else was developing when they get into the ensemble.  They’re too close to it, and they don’t know how their part fits in with the rest of them.  It becomes a texture.  It’s like one dot not knowing his place in a Seurat painting unless he gets outside of it, and can see the effect of all the dots.

Jan Bach

BD:   Does the audience have the ability to see
or hear!what all the dots are?

Bach:   If the performance comes off convincingly, all those connections are made.  But it’s very hard for the performers, sitting in the middle of the orchestra, to know this.  There are too many composers who have never played in an ensemble.  There are pianists, a lot of keyboard wizards, but when you’re in the middle of an orchestra it is different than playing alone.  In the brass section, for instance, I heard more timpani than anything else.  So, I have always over-written for the strings because from my position, all the sound holes in the string instruments were facing the opposite direction, and to me, string sound was a kind of ephemeral distance away from everything else that was happening in the orchestra.

BD:   You had to learn how to rebalance your writing?

Bach:   I really have had to, yes.  Normally I have to tone the strings down, because from the front of the orchestra, it’s gang busters.  Strings come out much stronger than I ever realized.  You don’t need winds and brass to have a good loud orchestra piece. You can have just strings playing, and when they’re playing by themselves, they seem, psychologically, as loud as the whole orchestra does when its playing.  It’s a very curious effect.

*     *     *     *     *

Jan Bach BD:   Coming back to the audience, are you conscious of them when you’re writing?

Bach:   I’m very conscious of the audience, because the worst thing is for the audience to be bored.  I like to think that if I didn’t have this fifteen-minute piece of music here, these people would be sitting in the audience for fifteen minutes listening to nothing.  So, I have to make it exciting for them.  That doesn’t mean that I try to write down to my audience.  I try to imagine an audience that has ears, that can recognize distances of intervals, that know if I take a theme that I can widen it out, or make the intervals smaller, or do various other things.  I hope they’ll catch some of that.  I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Benjamin Britten, when people would write that he used all of the stunts that you’re supposed to learn in the music appreciation class about how a composer develops his material.  But we have to consider that the ear’s a lot slower than the eye at recognizing patterns, and the most austere kind of twelve-tone music, where redundancy was a sin, people also lost communication.  If I have a class of forty people at the university, I have to repeat myself much more often than if I have a class of twenty people.

BD:   [Somewhat perplexed]  Why’s that?

Bach:   I don’t know, but we all know that when you have that number of people in the audience, there’s more of a chance that a certain percentage of them are going to be going off in dreamland.

BD:   If you’ve got twenty and you lose one, you don’t worry about it, but if you have forty and you lose three or four, then you go back and pick them up?

Bach:   That’s right, and also there are more people asking questions if there are forty in a class.  Generally, I team-teach a course in English Literature and Music, and the connections between them.  Inter-disciplinary courses are being taught now at Northern, and we find that we go through the material much more quickly when we have a small class of fifteen or so, and it takes a lot more time to go through the material when you have a class of forty.  We have an Honors class of fifteen one year, and we have the regular, General Education class of forty the next year, so a certain amount of that redundancy is built in.  I notice that when you’re mentioning a phone number over the radio, particularly for your Program Guide, you mention that more than once so that people will get it.  That’s redundancy!  There’s a famous monograph about a General looking at military band, and talking about the waste and inefficiency.  He’s talking about the fact that the trombone slides are all moving the same direction at the same time.

BD:   That’s waste???

Bach:   First of all, that’s not waste, that’s an inaccuracy.  He felt you could get rid of most of them because they’re all duplicating each other’s effort.  But he wants them to keep that effort initially, because you do things uniformly in the Army.  You all carry your riffles at the same angle, and you all march on the same foot at the same time.  Then, of course, all the string players are duplicating the same part, to a large extent.  Maybe the General would suggest that they go down to single players on a part.  Speaking of that, my wife and I went to a performance of On Your Toes in New York when it was revived, and I don’t think they had more than a string quartet along with woodwinds in the pit.  They were able to amplify the sound so much using ring modulation, that it sounded like a full chorus of strings.

BD:   So now then we’re producing more and more string players for fewer and fewer jobs?

Bach:   I didn’t know they were producing more and more string players.  We certainly don’t have very many right now at Northern, and we’re hoping that it’s just a phase.  From top to bottom, every year we’re down in some instrument or another.  We’ve got plenty of cellos now.  We have very few violins, and we also have more violas then we’ve had for several years.

BD:   We’ve had treble clef euphoniums, so now we should have bass clef violins.  [Much laughter]

Bach:   Yes, that’s right!  It would get a little more depth to the sound, if nothing else!  [More laughter]  There are problems, though, with supply and demand.  We’ve had a terrible situation in the last three or four years with some of the second lane orchestras biting the dust, and then reorganizing in much more modest circumstances.

BD:   I can think of Oakland, and Denver...

Bach:   ...and the New Orleans Symphony.  We’ve got to keep an audience for what I call ‘serious music’, or classical music, or ‘contemporary serious music’, or whatever name you want to give to it, because otherwise why will an orchestra be in demand in the first place?  We’ve got to bring people away from their home into the concert hall, and they have to hear this music somewhere or they won’t develop a taste and appreciation for it.  They certainly won’t develop that taste or appreciation by hearing little snippets of La Bohème in the various commercials on television.  I’m really upset about that.

BD:   Now you say you’ve got to get people out of their homes.  Radio and recordings won’t keep them in their homes?

Bach:   Actually, CDs are allowing certain concert sounds to come through.  I know that in Tristan and Isolde you can hear Karajan breathing, which is interesting because the CD is able to pick that up, and they didn’t try to mask it in any way.  You might hear noises like that, which are somewhat distracting in a live performance, and that’s all to the good.  The old LP recordings sometimes were too antiseptic, and made you believe that if you went to a concert hall, you were going to hear everything through a veil of silence.  When going to the Lyric Opera, if you sit in the main floor, it’s ‘Cough City’.  You hear coughing constantly.  These are, of course, some of the older people who have more bronchial infections during the bad winters here in Chicago.

BD:   It gets worse and worse as the weather gets colder and colder.

Bach:   Yes, but there is more rapt silence up in the balcony.

BD:   That’s where I am, up in the cheap seats.  But I remember hearing a tremendous intake of breath in the recordings of Bluebeard’s Castle when they open the fifth door.

Bach:   I’ve known people that were so disappointed when they go to live concerts.  They said for years the Beatles were not able to perform Sgt. Pepper in live concert because of all the electronic tricks that had been done with the recording.  Every place they went, people wanted Sgt. Pepper...

BD:   ...and they couldn’t recreate it.

Bach:   They couldn’t recreate it, no.

BD:   Now, the rock singers are just lip-synching to their records.

Bach:   I know.  It’s incredible.  I can’t believe people would go see something like that.

BD:   Is that a fraud?

Bach:   I don’t know.  The audience knows it.  They accept whatever conventions they grow up with, and if everybody lip-synchs, I guess they’ll accept it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask the big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music?

Bach:   As far as music is concerned, I’ve been thinking about this, and how I got into it.  It’s partly from my experience in programming a computer with some very simple, basic programs that I’ve written for our students to use to drill them on basic theory and orchestration and counterpoint.  When you want to talk about the expressive elements, my point of view as a composer is that I like controlling people.  I like being able to give a set of instructions that they must follow, because, God knows, nowhere else in my life does anybody listen to me at all.

Jan Bach

BD:   Do your kids listen to you?

Bach:   Not very much.  [Both laugh]  They say,
“Daddy’s going off on one of his wild tirades again.

BD:   But when you write a piece of music, do the performers have to do exactly what you tell them?

Bach:   They try.  They generally try very, very hard to do this, and I’ve been happy that most performers have enjoyed playing my music.  I don’t abuse the performer.  I try to stretch them somewhat, but I try to keep it within the realm.  They always tell me that my music is hard, but it’s not impossible.  It doesn’t make demands that are going to ruin them when the next piece comes up that they have to play.

BD:   Is it worth the difficulty of getting around the technical problems?

Bach:   I hope so, and I hope the difficulties don’t come out of simply not knowing the instruments well enough to know what is awkward to write and what isn’t.  But I really should address your question directly.  I think that music is necessary just because it is a non-verbal means of communication with people.  We’ve seen over the last few years how important non-verbal means can be, how orphans that are not cradled in the nursery and given some love and affection, will die.  That’s a non-verbal kind of communication, but it’s necessary, and music must be necessary.  It must strike some sympathetic chord
no pun intended because it would not have been around as long as it has been, otherwise.  We find the most primitive tribes delighting in rhythm, delighting in rhymes, delighting in the sounds of their own voice.  I think of rhyme and various syllables of languages as music, too, because they’re like tone colors of music.  An AAH [as in apple] is like a trumpet, and an OOH [as in flute!] is like a flute, and we have those sounds built into our language.  So, there’s music in the language.  Perhaps what happens is that those sounds are removed and abstracted from their meaning in normal everyday conversation, and, in that regard, we say that we are hearing this.  We recognize the individual sounds of this music, or these sounds are like the sounds we make when we’re speaking, but they’re not put together in a framework that is going to going to destroy the abstract meaning.  In that way, one appreciates a poem better if it’s in a language that one doesn’t understand, because you are listening to the pure sounds of the poem, and don’t hang it on some kind of prosaic image that we see around us.

BD:   I wonder if a good illustration of this is the Peanuts cartoons that you see on the television.  The kids are talking, and we understand their words, but then when the teacher or some other adult talks, it’s a trombone going,
“Wah, wah-wah, wah.

Bach:   Right!  My eldest daughter came home from school one day and said, I just don’t understand Mr. Such & Such.  He says such complicated things.

BD:   There’s a wonderful book called Vermont Is Where You find It.  It is half pictures and half words, and one photo shows some guy on the soapbox yacking to a small audience.  One guy says, “What’s he talking about?” and another guy says “He don’t say!”  [Much laughter]

Bach:   That’s an old Spike Jones routine.  Somebody picks up a phone and says, “You don’t say!  You don’t say!”  He hangs up and was asked, “Who was it?”  “He didn’t say!”  [More laughter]

Jan Bach BD:   Is there a connection between Spike Jones and PDQ Bach?  The thing that makes PDQ Bach funny is the fact that it is accurate.  His analysis of the Beethoven Fifth is a hundred percent on the money.  If he were just taking it off and just doing everything and making it wrong, it wouldn’t be funny.

Bach:   That’s the same reason why Anna Russell’s funny, but only to a number of people that appreciate what she does.  But I don’t think Florence Foster Jenkins is very funny.  She’s kind of pathetic, because, from what I understand, she really thought she was performing.  But Peter Schickele was at one time Persichetti’s graduate assistant at Juilliard.  I have a friend who was in the class, and he told me about one day when the trains weren’t running, or for some reason Persichetti wasn’t there.  So, Peter would show up for this counterpoint class and he’d say, “Now, kids, today I’m going to teach you something for which you will have no use for the rest of your life,” and proceed to teach it.  But then he did use it, because he used all these things.  The Art of the Ground Round (for three baritones and discontinuo, S. 1.19/lb) is absolutely a gorgeous piece of music, and if you’ll notice, in some of them the ostinato repeats at a different time than the phrase structure of the piece.  That’s not an easy thing to do and bring it off, but he’s capable of doing it.

BD:   Have you ever thought of writing a spoof of something?  [Vis-à-vis the recordings shown at right, see my interviews with Steven Stucky, Arthur Berger, and George Rochberg.]

Bach:   I have written spoofs.  In fact, people have gotten me confused with PDQ Bach because the piece of mine that gets performed more than anything else, Four Two-Bit Contraptions, was written when I was in the Army.  They were written as a birthday gift to a former horn student of mine whose roommate was a flautist.  Those two girls never did perform the piece, but it’s been performed all over.  It was supposed to have been done at the Santa Fe Music Festival this summer, with Ransom Wilson and Julie Landsman, who is first horn in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, but she got ill the night of the performance.  [Pauses for effect]  I wondered if she would have gotten sick performing somebody else’s music!  [Both laugh]  But often people think that maybe they were really written by PDQ Bach.  My name is really Bach, but I am no relation.  I cannot be.  My grandfather came from Alsace, north of Strasbourg.  He left when he was about seven or eight, and came to this country, and settled in Central Illinois along with a lot of another hearty German folk.

BD:   Has having the name Bach been a help or a hindrance to you and your musical career, or would you have been better off being a pharmacist?

Bach:   [Wistfully]  Oh, I probably would have been better off financially being a pharmacist or a doctor, but I don’t really know.  People remember my name, there’s no doubt about that.  When I met Leonard Bernstein, years ago at Tanglewood, he said, “Oh, you’re Jan Bach.
  I said, “How do you know my name?” and he said, “When I arrived this morning, I was looking at the roster of students, and I saw your name at the top.  I thought, God, what a name for a musician!  So, what’s your real name?”  I said, “Bach!  What’s yours?”  [Much laughter]  It really endeared me to Lenny.  He was a wonderful, wonderful man, and a terrific conductor.  I really wished he had done more conducting and left the composing to other people, because after West Side Story, I think he basically repeated himself.  There were a couple of nice pieces...

BD:   How do you make sure that you don’t repeat yourself?

Bach:   Oh, I repeat myself all the time.  I developed my own language.  I suppose I’ve really had my style since I was in college, because I wrote very early.  I started writing when I was seven years old.  It was all I ever wanted to do
that and draw cartoons.  I only wanted to do things that were not really acceptable in mixed circles.  I still caricature, and I’ve been interested in a variety of expressions of art.  A person’s background and experiences are what really determine whether he’s going to express him or herself in visual arts or music, but that creative urge will come through.

BD:   Are you left-handed?  It seems that a lot of artists are left-handed.

Bach:   My father and my sister are both left-handed.  My father was a cabinet maker, and that’s a kind of an artistic trait, or at least a tendency.  He just never had the opportunity to take piano lessons, but I think he wanted to.  He’s 78 years old, and he’s still going up to Canada to build cabins for a Boy Scout camp they’ve being developing at the Canadian border.  My mother’s a good cook, and I suppose that that’s her artistic preference.  It’s got to come out some way or other.

BD:   Are you glad that you are a creative person who writes music, or would you rather be a performer?

Bach:   I am a performer.  I was hired originally at Northern as a performer, and I’ve played in some second line orchestras.  But a lot of horn players get dissatisfied.  I don’t know if it’s the nature of the material, but if you’re a violinist you don’t have time to think about it.  With a horn player, you have a lot of rests, particularly in orchestras.  Then, when you do play, there’s so much routine music you think you could be doing something else.

BD:   Then let me turn the question around.  Are you a better composer because you are a good performer?

Jan Bach Bach:   No doubt about it.  I’m not that great a composer, but I’d be really awful if I had never learned to play an instrument or played in an ensemble, because at least I know what the expectations are.  I know, for instance, you can’t have the music written in as difficult a fashion for a full orchestra as you can for a solo group, or a small chamber ensemble.  There’s a much more finely honed ensemble experience in a small group, which is why a lot of orchestral strings like to get together into small string quartets and play.  When you’ve got the full group there, some of the sounds sort of blur, and you can’t be quite as exact when attacking specific notes.  The tone certainly doesn’t vary as much when you’ve got a chorus of people all playing at once on the same part, so you have to keep that in mind.  You might create a very interesting rhythm and love to use it, but you think you’d better save it for the next chamber piece, and not use it for this orchestra piece.  You have to keep in mind, if nothing else, that there’s going to be a distance of thirty-five or forty feet between the concert master and the tuba player, and the tuba also may be much slower-speaking once he puts the air through the horn.

BD:   Also, the double basses take a moment to start their sound.

Bach:   Yes, they take a moment to sort of warm up the instrument.  If you see a person playing the tam-tam or gong, they literally have to warm up the instrument by stroking it slightly with the stick to get the vibrations started before they can come in with that big clap of sound.

BD:   They have to prime it.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with William Mathias, and Sir Richard Rodney Bennett.]

Bach:   To prime it, yes.  They definitely have to do that, and so there’s some adjustments that one can only learn from playing in an ensemble.

BD:   I read a story that one time, the Philadelphia Orchestra was making a recording, and for some reason the engineers wanted the double-basses way up front, close for the microphone.  However, they were always ahead because...

Bach:   ...they were used to anticipating.  They were conditioned to play a little ahead of the beat.  Our choir director also plays the organ in the Episcopal Church, and it’s a tracker organ.  He has to always play the keys just a fraction of a second before he wants them to sound.  Then, he’s also conducting us at the same time in the choir.  I don’t know how anybody can do that.  It’s interesting what you said, because I remember Leopold Stokowski had the American Symphony Orchestra at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C., when I was in the Army.  He did the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, and he had the most unusual arrangement I’d ever seen for an orchestra.  He had all of the violins and violas on the left side of the orchestra, and the cellos directly in front of him, so that the sound would come out into the audience.  All the woodwinds and brass were on the conductor’s right, and the string basses were behind the woodwinds and brass, very close to the front of the stage.  All the percussion was behind the strings on the opposite side.  It was a very strange mishmash, because there are times when Tchaikovsky really did want first and second violins on opposite sides for that ricochet effect he had built into the music.

BD:   Almost like stereo, harking back to Gabrieli.

Bach:   Absolutely, yes.  Rimsky Korsakov also had, as I understand it, music stands in the large work room that he used, set out like a symphony orchestra would be, so he could see and visualize
or audioizewhere the sound would be coming from.

BD:   When I’m at Orchestral Hall here in Chicago, I prefer to sit upstairs if I can, so I can watch the orchestration as well as hear it.

Bach:   Do you also notice that the further away you get, the more it blends, and you have more difficulty hearing the directionality of the sound?

BD:   Very slightly, but then I’m watching and hearing it together.

Bach:   Your eye maybe takes the place of that.  For instance, I’ve always had some trouble getting used to some of these stereo recordings, because in most orchestra situations, I don’t hear that separation, especially with certain doublings, like flute and clarinet, or oboe and clarinet playing together.

BD:   They come from two different places on the stereo arc?

Bach:   They’re in two different places, but the composer intended them to be heard as one new instrument.  Take the Polka from Schwanda the Bagpiper.  He makes extensive use of that doubling, and it wouldn’t do it any good if they’re heard as a separate clarinet and a separate oboe.

BD:   You’re hearing it from where the conductor is standing, and usually that’s almost the worst place to hear an orchestra.  [At this point, I needed to turn over the cassette, and we spent a few moments just chit-chatting about mundane things...]  I’m sure I’m nothing at all like what you visualized.  Most people imagine me as tall, and thin, and very old, rather than short and dumpy...

Bach:   I thought you would be older, but I didn’t know how long you’d been working at WNIB.  [Click HERE to see an appropriate cartoon.]

BD:   It’s my sixteenth year, so in radio I’m an old man.

Bach:   You’re not as young as you look, then?  You look like you’re about thirty-five years old.

BD:   Next year I hit the big four-oh!  [Much laughter]

Bach:   I really only started listening to WNIB about four years ago when I found that our cable set up would bring it in, because it’s very hard to pick it up over the air.  It seems to be easier to hear your late at night.  I pick you up on my car radio in my garage, and when I’m in the house I have to have the cable attached to it, or I can’t hear you.

Jan Bach

BD:   Do you encourage your students to sometimes listen to the station?

Bach:   I encourage them to listen to anything that would broadcast serious music, but it’s a losing battle because they’re all into their own thing.

BD:   I just wondered if you could go through the Program Guide and find something very interesting, and literally assign it?

Bach:   I will do that.  I’d like to do it, except that they have difficulty in picking the radio in their dorm rooms.  Some of the university buildings, including our music building, have so much steel in the structure that it’s like a giant magnet, and then it just doesn’t pick up like it should.

BD:   You’re in a fringe area, so anything that’s going to interfere is going to interfere more because the signal is weaker that far away from the transmitter, which is downtown.

Bach:   Even with the cable, I have to put it on 
‘monaural mode’ on the receiver so I don’t get the whooshing sound back and forth.

BD:   It’s even bad downtown on the Near North side.  The sound just bounces all over among the huge steel high-rises.

Bach:   My cousin’s a stockbroker who lives on the Near North side, and he complains that they don’t allow him to have cable service in the condominium he has, and the buildings are so tall that he can’t pick up half the stations.  On the television, he gets this terrible ghosting image on every channel.  He bought a property close to his father’s home, which is a hundred miles south of here, in order to be able to see some of the television shows that he can’t see in Chicago.  He goes down there every weekend.

Jan Bach BD:   I know that in the same building, one apartment can get us perfectly, clear as a bell, and the guy in the next apartment, or one floor up, can’t get us at all.

Bach:   There are a lot of things I would love to hear in stereo.  I’m a stereo nut.  I even have a 3-D camera, and I still take 3-D pictures.

BD:   It has two lenses?

Bach:   Yes.  In fact, now they’re coming out now with one that has four lenses.  It’s a constant blend, and they put the pictures out as prints with these little corrugated plastic backings.  You turn it slightly, and it’s a kind of shallow 3-D.  Your eyes see a portion of three or four different pictures, and blends them.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk about The Happy Prince.  This is being done here in Chicago?

Bach:   It’s being done by a new emerging orchestra, just a wonderful orchestra, called Symphony of the Shores.  My wife and I attended their gala opening concert last Spring [1990], and I thought it was just terrific.

BD:   Did they approach you, or did you approach them?

Bach:   As it turns out, a couple of the performers teach at Northern, and for the first concert they wanted a work about eight minutes long for string orchestra, so they asked me if I had anything, and I said no, I don’t.  I said I did have a thirty-minute piece for string orchestra, and they said they might consider that.  But then they were interested in hearing some more of my music, and I happened to have this recording of The Happy Prince, which was done in Omaha at least nine or ten times for people of all ages.  It won a contest back in 1978.

BD:   What is it scored for?

Bach:   It’s scored for single woodwinds, two trumpets, two horns and one trombone, small strings, a lot of percussion, a keyboard player who plays piano, harpsichord, and celeste, narrator, and a solo violinist, who represents the swallow in the story.  This is a very famous story.  It pops up everywhere.  It’s based on an Oscar Wilde story.  Bing Crosby brought out a recording of it, and Loretta Swit was going to put out a recording of it after she finished with the M*A*S*H TV series.  [
The story had been adapted for radio by Orson Welles in 1944, featuring a musical score by Bernard Herrmann. It was aired on the Philco Radio Hall of Fame broadcast on December 24, 1944 featuring Bing Crosby alongside Orson Welles, with Herrmann's music conducted by Victor Young.  Lurene Tuttle played The Swallow.  Decca Records signed up the participants to make a commercial recording the following August.  It appeared as a two-disc 78-rpm album, and then a 10" LP in 1949.  The other recording was issued as the B side of an Open Sky LP in 1984, with Swit, John Carradine, Keith Carradine, and music by Martin Scot Kosins.]

BD:   Tell me how your version came about.

Bach:   I long felt that there was a need for concert material that went beyond Peter and the Wolf.  One of the things that annoys me about that piece
and it’s not Prokofiev’s faultis that he wrote it at a time when microphones were not used to the extent they are today.  So, the orchestra has to come to a grinding halt every time the narrator has to the mention the next bit of storyline.  What I wanted to do was to write a piece in which the storyline was included in the orchestration.  I would have little windows, places where the orchestration would thin out so that the narrator could be heard.  With the modern public address systems we have, this is no problem... provided you get the microphone in the right place.  The work itself is thirty-five minutes long, which makes it much longer than Peter and the Wolf, but it was necessary to tell the story.  It’s also much more challenging.  Children are certainly capable of seeing all sorts of areas of life that are not all happiness and sunshine, and I won’t say I get a grim satisfaction out of hearing children weep during the program, except that I was aware that they did have these depths that could be plumbed from time to time.  When we did it in Omaha, every group of children that listened to the performances of the Omaha Symphony, with my wife reading the words, were all touched by it.  It struck nerves that had never been struck before, because we’re becoming more and more in the frame of mind that children shouldn’t be exposed to these things.  We feel they get enough of it when they grow up, so they’re expurgating a lot of children’s stories.

BD:   Was this a happy ending though?

Bach:   It’s a happy ending in a way.  The Swallow dies, and the statue of The Happy Prince is melted down for scrap, but their souls climb to heaven and live with God for ever more.  At that point, the orchestra breaks into this huge Baroque music which borrows a little bit from every baroque composer I’ve ever heard.  It’s a joyous type of thing you’d hear in a setting of the Magnificat, because to me that’s what Heaven is like.  I’ve been in enough Southern German cathedrals where you see you see putty and cherubs falling out of the plaster on the ceiling.  It’s very Baroque and ornate.  I’d love to think that Heaven was something like that.  That’s the grand finale of the piece.  The rest of the music tries to match the actions of the narrator with appropriate musical symbols.  There’s a hornpipe that is heard when The Swallow flies down to the waterfront, and there are little leitmotifs for The Happy Prince, who is really quite sad, and for the pedestal he stands upon, and for The Swallow who stops there on his way to Egypt.  The music for Egypt is actually authentic Egyptian music that I found on an old Folkways recording.  I rewrote it and tried to make it sound like authentic Egyptian instruments.  That comes back several times because The Swallow wants to go to Egypt, but The Happy Prince keeps him there
wherever he is, in Brussels, or London, or some cold Northern city of Europebecause he wants the little swallow to take the statue’s gold leaf and his jeweled sword and various things to distribute them among the poor.  It’s a kind of Christmas story, or a story for any relationship of man to man, woman to woman, child to child, in which charity and certain redemption is involved.  As I said, the story pops up in unusual ways.  I remember seeing a movie called The Eye of the Needle, taken from the Ken Follett novel.  Donald Sutherland, who is a very brutal murderer, is sitting in this tiny little farm house, next to a lighthouse, up on one of the far Northern British Isles, reading this story to a little boy who he later tries to murder.  Some people confuse this story with The Little Prince, which is something totally different.  This is The Happy Prince, which was part of a group of stories of Oscar Wilde [published in May, 1888], including The Selfish Giant, The Nightingale and the Rose, and other stories.  I first came in touch with this when I was in fifth grade.  Close to Christmas one year, our teacher read this story to us, and it made an immediate effect on me.  I thought that it would be a wonderful story to set to music, but it took years and years before I felt I was really ready to do that.

BD:   It just sat there and fermented in your mind?

Bach:   I think so, yes.  It was one of those things I always intended to do.  I’ve always intended, for instance, to write a story based on another well-known fairy tale, in which all of the instruments do things that are totally unlike what they’re supposed to be doing.  That would really confuse people, but would be a tongue-in-cheek kind of travesty.  I was hoping to get somebody that looks like Percy Dovetonsils (the character created by Ernie Kovacs) to do it.

BD:   With this idea for The Happy Prince germinating in your mind all these years, did you find that when you finally sat down to write it that the ideas just flowed out, or was it difficult to write each measure?

Jan Bach Bach:   They did flow out to the extent that I had time.  The catalyst for it was the birth of our second daughter, Eva, and when I wrote the piece, I dedicated it to both Dawn and Eva, our two children.  Actually, I started before she was born.  I started writing it in December, after the first semester of teaching was over in 1977, and she was born in January of ’78.  I didn’t get anything written for the next couple of months after that.  [Laughs]  There was just too much activity in the house!  But then, when school was out in May, I wrote the rest of it.  I had been trying to kick a cigarette habit for a long time, and that was one of the times when I stopped smoking and was basically OD-ing on jellybeans.  I think that sugar did something to me, because it’s one of the most involved scores I’ve ever written.  It was, for me, a kind of breakthrough of a lot of new techniques that I had not used before, and they were all in the main of illustrating the story.  For instance, near the end of the story, every instrument of the orchestra has simultaneous cadenzas.  This is where the words the narrator is speaking are about how all the town councilors argued among themselves.

BD:   So it’s perfectly appropriate!

Bach:   It was appropriate, and I thought it’s nice in a way.  Perhaps this can introduce some contemporary techniques of composition to an audience that would not accept them unless there was a program attached to them.  In other words, if there was a reason for it, it would make sense.

BD:   The way you describe it sounds like a hell of a row!

Bach:   Oh, it is!  It’s awful.  The clarinet is up there, shrieking away, and the trumpets are all muted and sound like they’re thumbing their noses at people.  The town councilors are arguing which one will have a statue in their image after they melted The Happy Prince.  Of course, the Mayor wants it to be a statue of himself, and each of the town councilors want it to be a statue of himself, so that’s how they start the argument.  In any other situation, people will listen to that and say the orchestra’s gone totally crazy, but for this case, it was very appropriate.  Also, at one point they say that the statue’s heart is breaking, and there is a long, low rubbing sound.  I can’t remember the exact words, but it is as though something was breaking inside the statue, and for that I used a very unusual South American percussion instrument called the Cuíca.  There’s a rattan stick attached to the skin of the drum, and when you pull on that stick with a rosined glove, you get this most incredible rubbing sound.  It is normally used rhythmically, but in my case, I just use three or four well-placed sound effects.  Percussion instruments have always been used as sound effects.  [The Cuíca is similar to the
Lions Roar, an instrument called for by Varèse in his Ionisation (1933).]

BD:   Are you pleased with the recording?

Bach:   I’m pleased with the orchestral part of it.  We did not have enough time in the studio to add the voice appropriately.  There are places when the orchestra comes to a complete stop, and Dalia, my wife, says a line and then the orchestra starts again.  It’s supposed to be short, but in some cases, it was too short because the narration was recorded separately from the orchestration.

BD:   They splice it in, and there’s no time in between?

Bach:   Yes.  We were able to put some time, in but we had not taken enough of a sound-sample of the hall.  The orchestra was recorded in the old Orpheum Theater in downtown Omaha.  There’s a certain ambiance to every hall, and you have to take a certain amount of that silence to use in places where splices like this occur.  We didn’t have that much to use, and it was very costly to rent the hall for the recording session.  There were other concerns, too.  I was out in the sound truck, which was pulled up in the alley, and that’s where all of the sound equipment was.  So, we had no eye-contact with the conductor, or I might have been able to tell him to leave a little more room in certain places.  It came down to the task of my wife fitting her words into the orchestration.

BD:   She had to rush?

Bach:   She was recording on a separate real of tape.  She could hear the orchestration through the earphones, but there was no conducting going on because the conductor, who was sitting in the control room for the final mix, was not able to give her the visual cues.  Here for the performance in Chicago, we have a case where the narrator and conductor are on stage together, so everything is in tandem very, very well.  This is actually the second time The Happy Prince will have been done in Chicago.  It was presented at Grant Park, as part of a series of noontime concerts back in 1981.  My wife was narrating, and Barbara Schubert, who is at the University of Chicago, was the conducting the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra.  I was amazed at how well those people put it together.

BD:   [With amusement]  It was Schubert conducting Bach!

Bach:   That’s right!  [Gales of laughter from both]  It’s funny, because my first roommate in college was named Larry Schubert.  I thought this was a marriage made in Heaven, but he sat up all night playing pinochle, and I had an 8 o’clock class, so that was the end of that relationship!

*     *     *     *     *

Jan Bach BD:   Are you basically pleased with the other recordings that have been made of your music?

Bach:   There is one concern I have, which is generally that the people who are recording my music very rarely think that I might be interested in hearing what it sounds like before it is pressed and released as a recording.  I don’t know if other composers have had this problem.  It’s not written down anywhere by BMI or ASCAP, or the various people that control the recording industry, but it’s considered a mark of good faith, and just a courtesy to the composer, that if it’s the first recording, that the composer should have the right to hear the piece before the final mix-down and pressing.

BD:   You don’t usually get that?

Bach:   I don’t get that.  I won’t tell you the ones where it’s bad, but in some cases, like with the New York Brass Quintet, by the time they recorded the piece, they had taken on two European tours.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Gunther Schuller, and George Heussenstam.]

BD:   So, they knew it very well?

Bach:   They knew it inside and out, so I had the faith that they were going to do a good job.  They weren’t going to let anything go out that was less than perfect.  One example is Milton Babbitt, who got a certain amount of money one time to put out a recording, and the performers had just a certain amount of time to put that recording together and tape it.  These were good performers, but there were mistakes all over the place.  They simply didn’t have the time to fix it.  But Babbitt had to release the recording, and Milton, if you’re listening, I got that from one of the performers.  I’d be happy to tell you who it is, and you can take it up with him if I’m wrong!  [Both laugh]  He was put in an unusual situation.  He’d accepted the grant, and the people who granted him the money expected the recording to come out.  They did not want to just pour money down a hole, so he was required to do that.  What I found very disturbing was the Musicians’ Union didn’t want these people rehearsing outside of the amount of time that had been paid for.  In fact, they did meet one time in a kind of clandestine operation at somebody’s apartment in New York to go over the music, but they did so with very strong guilt feelings because they were not contracted to do this.  When you’re a performing musician who’s paid, that’s the only service you provide, and you have to be very careful how much you do for nothing.  They were supposed to do this within the balance of the money that had paid for a certain amount of rehearsal time, and once that money was gone, that was the end of the rehearsal, and it was time to record the piece.

BD:   I assume that, as a composer, you put in whatever time is necessary to get your piece right, and then get it to a publisher?

Bach:   I had a publisher that was given first refusal on anything I wrote, but they bit the dust a couple of years ago.  They were proud that they stayed afloat longer than G. Schirmer did.  G. Schirmer has been absorbed into a big conglomerate, but my publisher was Galaxy Music, and Galaxy’s principal money earner was
The Crucible, the opera by Robert Ward, which still gets such a terrific number of performances around the country.  That was the big money-maker for them, and they were also the American representative for Stainer & Bell, who had a lot of Vaughan Williams, and Holst’s pieces.  They also published a variety of madrigals, and were the American representatives for some English publishing concerns.  But I don’t really have a publisher right now.  I’m just starting to submit things around.

BD:   But you do spend whatever amount of time you need on the piece to get it right?

Bach:   Yes, I try to.

BD:   How do you know when the piece is right, and finished, and ready to be launched?

Bach:   When it’s finished is not when it’s launched!  I always make changes after the piece has been performed the first time.  When the Horn Concerto was performed, I removed about three minutes’ worth of music in the middle of it.  There was a time when I wouldn’t have done that, but after my experience of having two operas produced in New York, I realized that’s sometimes the expedient thing to do... particularly with opera, because you don’t want people standing on stage with nothing to do.  Everything has to move.  One opera was produced by Beverley Sills at Lincoln Center.

BD:   Which work was this?

Jan Bach Bach:   This was The Student from Salamanca.  It was on a triple bill with works by Tom Pasatieri and Stanley Silverman, and they were so worried about the piece going longer than it was intended to.  It was supposed to go no longer than an hour, and it was an hour and five minutes, so they asked me to chop ten minutes off it.  Naturally, what they suggested was that I chop off the slowest music, but it threw the whole piece into the wrong proportions and wrong scale, because now we had no really slow music to offset the fast scurrying music.  The thing was about an old man and a young wife.

BD:   It was fifty minutes of frantic music?

Bach:   Yes, and their main concern was that they couldn’t afford to go over
not because it wasn’t fair to the audience or the piece, but because the Musicians’ Union charges double time for overtime.  They could not afford to keep the orchestra any longer.  Harold Prince was in the audience, because he was rehearsing Silverlake of Kurt Weill at the same time.  He said, “I don’t know why I work with opera companies.  With a musical, you keep going to your backers, and keep getting more money until you’ve got it right.  But with opera, when the money has gone, that’s it!”  You have just a certain framework to work with, and he found it very difficult to work within that financial framework.

BD:   Can I assume that you saved the music that was chopped out, and that eventually you’ll get a performance that will run the full sixty-five minutes?

Bach:   No, because I think some of those minutes needed to be chopped.  There are other places where I chopped a little bit, but I did restore those.  The Cleveland Opera, in fact the very next month after this was done in New York, did a performance, and I restored some of the music that had been cut, and it worked out much better.

BD:   When you’re trying out different phrases, how do you know when you’ve got the right one?

Bach:   [Laughs]  You’re going to create a terrific writer’s block now!  I’m going to go back now and wonder how I did know.  The fact is that I don’t know.  It feels right, it still may not be right because the only way you can really tell is when it’s unfolding in real time.  For instance, I may think that I’ve got more than enough sound from the soloist to penetrate through a rather heavy orchestral fabric, and it doesn’t.  I find that particularly true of the bassoon.  I have a great deal of trouble making the bassoon come out from a background of string sound.  Other people don’t, and I don’t know why I do.  One of the standards is the Concert Piece for Bassoon and Strings by Burrill Phillips.  You can hear every note on that.  I’ve never heard it live, and the soloist on the old Philadelphia First Chair album might have been very close to the microphone.  But I find that if the bassoon is in the orchestra, often I have to intensify it with low clarinet or bass clarinet for it to come through.  Or, I have to lighten up the strings, but that’s an orchestration problem.  However, as far as the melodic ideas, generally I don’t know.

BD:   Let me attack the same question slightly differently.  When you’re writing, are you always in control of what goes on the paper, or there are times when the pencil is somewhat controlling your hand?

Bach:   I’m always in control for the first two or three minutes of the piece.  For instance, with this Euphonium Concerto that I just finished, I was working on the first eight measures for three months, at an odd moment here and there, while I was still teaching at the university.  Finally, by the end of the semester, I was over that hurdle and could move on.  The more notes I get, the faster I go, and eventually I lose myself in the music.  But I guess the big thing is setting the tone for the beginning.  What is the personality of this music?  What is it intended to do?  Then I have trouble because people love names.  They love to have paintings in the art galleries named and titled.  I don’t just like to call a piece as Movement One, Movement Two, Movement Three, but finding a name for that first movement was very hard.  I finally called it Legend, which evoked a dramatic treatment like a ballade, but not to be confused with Chopin’s pieces.  I didn’t want to use that term again, and it sounds a little bit hoity-toity.  I have trouble finding names for the pieces, too, but getting the tone of the thing is my first concern.  There’s also something special in every piece I write.  You were asking me about my name.  I do find some place in every piece to throw a little signature in.  It’s not like the Dmitri Shostakovich signature (sings D-S-C-H [D, E-flat, C, B-natural]), and it’s not (sings B-A-C-H [B-flat, A, C, B-natural]), like J.S. Bach worked into some of pieces.  It’s always something that has a derivation from Baroque procedures.  In my Woodwind Quintet, there’s a fugue built on the song Because, which used to be a very popular wedding song.  You will see why it is if you get the recording of it, and compare it to the fourth movement of my Woodwind Quintet.

*     *     *     *     *

Jan Bach BD:   You do a lot of teaching.  What advice do you have for young composers coming along?

Bach:   I wish young composers were not so easily swayed by the latest fashion.  I have to remind myself they don’t know it’s the latest fashion, but that it’s the fashion they were born into.  We have seen a variety of composition applications in the twenty-five years that I’ve taught at Northern.  Most recently it’s been Minimalism, and you get a variety of students who think they can write Minimalism, and for that reason they feel they’re great composers.  I said the same thing when I was in school.  There were abstract expressions of painters, and as soon as painting turned more towards representation of the human figure again, these people were lost.  They just couldn’t do it.  I’ve seen twelve-tone come and go, and I
ve seen the happenings of the 60s, and a kind of ‘dada-esque’ type of music.  I’ve seen music which was nothing more than a set of tools which were given to the performers, who were then told to put them together into a piece somehow.  In that way, I’m very conservative.  I mentioned earlier that I like to control people.  I like to feel there’s some place on Earth where people will follow the orders that are given to them if there’s some purpose that is higher than they are.  I’m hoping some of my music is that way, because I do work it out very, very carefully.  Sometimes I think I throw the baby out with the bath water, because the initial inspiration gets changed so much by the time the piece is ready to roll.  Sometimes it is not at all the piece I intended to write.

BD:   Then are you’re surprised where it turned out?

Bach:   I’m surprised, but most is a matter of screening through a net of a certain degree of structure, clarity, consistency and control.  That might be a good thing to keep in mind, because there are many more composers than there were when I was first writing.

BD:   Are there too many?

Bach:   There may be.  Nicolas Slonimsky said there were.  He said his big biographical dictionary [Baker
s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians] had many composers who are dead, and many others who should be!  [Much laughter]  David Raksin called me a couple of weeks ago.  He knew Slonimsky all his life, and he said that Slonimsky has strict orders from his publishers not to include any new names in the new edition, but to wait for the 2000 edition.  [Coming back to the topic]  But the young composer really is very easily dazzled by all sorts of techniques.  We now have the techniques that he hears of different composers, but also the success some of these composers have enjoyed.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

Bach:   Oh, there’ll always be music!  I’m not so sure it’s going to be the kind that I would appreciate, but then I don’t know that Mozart would be able to appreciate Richard Strauss, for instance, or the highly chromatic composers of the last century.  If Mozart thought that Wagner was a continuation of the operatic tradition that he left, with so many beautiful works of music, I don’t think it’s my place to say newer music is going to be different, therefore it’s no good.  I would hope that there would still be a certain degree of craftsmanship, and seriousness of purpose no matter what people write.  Kenneth Gaburo said it very well many years ago, when I was studying with him.  He said I had to get around the notion that the music was working for me, but I had to work for the music.  I had to be a kind of amanuensis for the music.  Roy Harris said that, too.  When people would say, “Oh, I like that melody in the Third Symphony,” he’d say, “Well, I didn’t really write that, you know.  I just heard that music in the air, and I wrote it down.”  He was very humble in that way.  He felt he was the agent, or medium through which this music passed.  That’s when I know the music is going well
when I feel that way.  When I feel that what I’m writing it is just there in the air, and I’m the agency through which it passes, that is the best.

BD:   Is that when composing is fun?

Bach:   Yes, but I’m very suspicious of that kind of writing, because if it doesn’t come out like I expect, or if I don’t get terrific birth pains in writing the piece of music, I feel that it can’t be worthwhile.  When it comes too easy, there’s the danger of being too facile.  There’s always that danger.  There are certain composers
Malcolm Arnold, for instance, who writes very enjoyable concert music, but there’s something disturbingly facile about it.  I don’t know if he ever really thought about a measure before he wrote it.

BD:   It just happens?

Bach:   It just happens.  He was also a performer.  Leroy Anderson sweated out every measure, which is a lot of trouble to go to, to come out with sixty-four bars, because all of his pieces fall into that standard number of measures that you associate with pop music.  But there is an incredible amount of sensitivity there.  You may be surprised that I’m saying that about Leroy Anderson.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  He sweated over every keystroke of The Typewriter???

Bach:   Yes, and the bell at the end of each line!  [More laughter, and then he reminisced about a couple other oddities]  There’s a wonderful old piece by Charles Hamm called Round, which was at one time played at the Round House concerts that John Garvey had in Urbana.  Various composers of University of Illinois would contribute.  Hamm was teaching there, and he got the idea of ornamenting Frère Jacques and writing it on something that looks like a lampshade.  It was circular, and about that width, and he rigged it up to something that had a rheostat controlling a motor.  The speed would go faster and faster.  There were either instrumentalists or singers who would stand around it, and as that portion of the lampshade came around to their place, they would sing their part.  It was a wonderful piece.  It was done in this huge round building in Urbana that was John Garvey’s home.  John directed the University of Illinois Jazz Band, and was the violist of the Walden String Quartet for years.  I don’t know if Slonimsky knew about that particular piece, but he came up with a piece that you were supposed to assemble.  It was published in Source magazine, and was called The Möbius Strip Tease.  The möbius strip was a long strip of paper, and you put a half turn in it when you glue the two ends together, so you end up with a single surface.  Then, when you come around the surface that you were tracing with your finger, it is now on the inside where it was on the outside before.

Jan Bach

See my interview with Morton Gould

BD:   So there’s a twist in it?

Bach:   Yes!  He had written this music that was supposed to be played in such a way that when you hit the twist, the thing would be upside down and backwards.

BD:   So you get retrograde inversion!

Bach:   That’s right!  [Much laughter]  It was hilarious, and I wondered why this great musicologist would waste his time doing something like this, and in doing so, basically putting down that whole movement that was really very, very strong at that time.  I’m sure that he must be very surprised to see somebody like Roger Reynolds, who was at one time part of that movement, winning the Pulitzer Prize.  I sent Roger a note saying he’d finally joined the ranks of the conservative!  [Laughs]  But Roger had some of his early music published in Source magazine.
 Roger and I split the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood in 1961.  We were both studying with Roberto Gerhard, who wrote a Concerto For Orchestra which is very nice.  He died in 1968.  He lived right outside Cambridge, and in England they have these little pay-phones right in the middle of the country.  So I went into one.  I was only a block away from his house, and I called his wife, and said I was in Cambridge for the afternoon, and asked if I stop by and see Mr. Gerhard.  I always called him that.  She said she was so sorry, but he’d just had another stroke, and couldn’t be disturbed.  That turned out to be his last stroke.

[At this point, the cassette ran out.  Having spoken for ninety minutes, we decided there was plenty of material for several programs.
I thanked him for taking the time to visit with me, and assured him that his thoughts would be put to good use, along with recordings of his music.

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© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in in Chicago on October 29, 1990.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB a week later, and again in 1997.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.